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Hope for 2023: Fish Passage, Cutthroat Restoration, and Habitat Funding

Fly Fisherman News Briefs for January 9, 2023.

Hope for 2023: Fish Passage, Cutthroat Restoration, and Habitat Funding

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists are moving approximately 10,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout fry into waters in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the species’ historical habitat is centered in southern Colorado and nearby northern New Mexico. (Photo courtesy USFWS, Chris  Kitcheyan)

With the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays now behind us, the attention of many fly anglers in the early days of 2023 runs towards the task of turning presents into possessions, especially when those gifts are things like fly rods, fly reels, fly boxes, and other goodies from St. Nick that promise good times on the water in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of water and the weeks ahead, here’s the year’s first look at news briefs involving important topics and causes that impact the sport near and dear to our angling hearts.

Colorado Rio Grande Cutties Get Assist

With much of the West being buried in abundant snowfall this winter, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the West is warming. And with it, native trout species continue to be imperiled as our climate changes and urban population centers grow and the need for more and more water continues. 

But while times have indeed been tough for species like Colorado’s Rio Grande cutthroat, innovative new work from Centennial State biologists is giving this iconic species a better chance to be a part of the Rocky Mountain’s future. 

That’s potentially the case after recent work where Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDW) biologists are using a little assisted migration—via helicopter and boot leather—to move approximately 10,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout fry into safe, icy cold waters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the species’ historical habitat is centered in southern Colorado and nearby northern New Mexico.

After the big release of genetically pure Rios into area lakes, and with more releases planned for streams like Sand Creek, the hope is that the Rio Grande cutthroat species will not only gain more of a foothold into its original range, but also find a more secured future as they get planted in icy cold waters that will safeguard the species from a warming planet.

While some note that assisted migration has to be used carefully given the risks of impacting habitat and other native species, the hopes of CDW aquatic biologists like Estevan Vigil are that the future of Rio Grande cutthroats will be a bright and secure one after efforts like this.

“When you consider the size and remoteness, this is probably the biggest restoration project we’ve ever done,” said Vigil, in an excellent story by Ben Goldfarb of High Country News

The project is tough and brings the need for careful thought, planning, and evaluation, but the stakes are high and the hopes are grand that Colorado’s native Rio Grande cutthroat will delight fly anglers for many years to come.

California Salmonid Habitat Gets Financial Boost

Just before the New Year dawned, there was good end of year news announced in California where anadromous salmonid habitat received an $11 million financial boost for 25 projects in the Golden State.

Scenic shot of Cedar Creek
Two dozen plus projects will go to further the objectives of state and federal fisheries recovery plans for Pacific salmon and steelhead. (Photo courtesy CDFW)

With the money earmarked for restoration, enhancement and protective work, the fishery funding grants come through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Fisheries Restoration Grant Program according to a news release. First established in 1981, and including federal funding since 2000 from the Congressionally established Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, the money and work in California will go to stem declines of Pacific salmon and steelhead in the state, as well as help the species throughout their range in the Pacific Northwest and into Alaska.

“As California continually feels the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, prolonged drought, more extreme temperatures and extreme precipitation events, restoring degraded river ecosystems is more important than ever before,” said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW director, in the news release. “These FRGP funded projects will help restore the refugia salmonids need.”

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The two dozen plus projects will reportedly go to further the objectives of state and federal fisheries recovery plans for Pacific salmon and steelhead, including work for removal of fish migration barriers, the restoration of riparian habitat, river recoveries following wildfire impacts, and creating managed water resources that are more resilient and sustainable. 

Federal Fish Passage Projects Receive Funding Recommendation

With the New Year, the recent mid-term Congressional elections last November promise to bring change to Washington, D.C. And with those changes, it also raises the question of how things might differ in regards to bi-partisan cooperation concerning funding for vital fish and wildlife habitat needs across the country. 

A backhoe removes a dam in Maine's Penobscot River
Dam removal projects are being prioritized across the U.S., like this one on Maine's Penobscot River. (Photo courtesy of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust)

Case in point, a news release last month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA) department touts the fact that more than $100 million in funding recommendations has been made for a variety of fish benefitting projects.

“NOAA is recommending nearly $105 million in funding for 36 fish passage projects this year and $61 million in future funding under the Biden-Harris Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” said a NOAA Fisheries news release. “With this historic level of funding, our partners will reopen migratory pathways and restore access to healthy habitat for fish across the country.”

Hopefully, that’s good news for helping native fish. But remember, there’s a new Congress in town, so how everything goes remains to be seen.

Breaking the funding recommendations down, NOAA notes that it is recommending “…more than $16 million in funding for 13 projects selected through the Restoring Tribal Priority Fish Passage through Barrier Removal funding opportunity” and “…more than $87 million in funding for 23 projects selected through the Restoring Fish Passage through Barrier Removal funding opportunity.”

The agency says that the 13 projects mentioned above will help Native American tribes in their role as managers and stewards of “…tribal trust resources for cultural, spiritual, economic, subsistence, and recreational purposes. They will support tribally important fish passage barrier removal projects and help to increase tribal capacity to participate in developing current and future fish passage projects.”

For the other 23 projects, NOAA Fisheries says that they “…will help restore access to healthy habitat for migratory fish across the country through efforts including: on-the-ground fish passage restoration, engineering and design, future project development, and building the capacity of new and existing partners to design projects and manage multi-faceted restoration efforts.”

The projects are varied in scale and impact, but include dam removal, bridge removal, the restoration of habitat, improving fish passages, the removal of fish passage barriers, and the restoration of access among other things. 

A variety of states from the East Coast to the West Coast are potentially impacted as well as a number of tribal lands across the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.


Lynn Burkhead is a Senior Digital Editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group. 




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